Succeeding Success: Topy and Toni Vasquez
A father-daughter architecture balancing act at TVA&P, made interesting by forceful personalities
June 10, 2017
Interview and introduction by Miguel R. Llona
Photographed by John Daryl Ocampo
The symbol of Libra is the Scales, which stands for justice and balance. That symbol couldn’t be more fitting for Teofilo “Topy” and his daughter Toni Vasquez of T.I. Vasquez Architects and Planners (TVA&P), both Librans—it’s always a balancing act when it comes to their differing ideas and concepts for projects, made interesting and not a little challenging by their strong, forceful personalities. “Medyo madalas kami mag-espadahan ni Toni,” says Topy during the course of our interview, and Toni laughs in agreement.
When describing their work dynamic, Toni says her dad turned into her very own despot the minute she stepped into the architecture business, and their clashes mimic World War Z. Both welcome these clashes as an important part of the design process that fuels their creativity. If it means generating good, practical design, then it’s in everyone’s best interest to just sit back and watch these two architects have a go at each other.
Was architecture your first love?
Topy: No, I wanted to be a car designer. But my father told me to take Architecture instead, because at that time, wala pa yung course na Industrial Design. He studied Architecture but he didn’t finish because of the war. Then there’s my eldest brother, August, who was studying Architecture too. Nakikita ko siyang nagda-draft, ganun, so nagustuhan ko na rin. That started my interest.
Where did you study? Who mentored you?
Topy: I took up Architecture in FEU, in 1976. My mentor was my eldest brother. During that time, I admired the famous architects, sina Locsin. But the one I admired most was Gabriel Formoso, because of his professionalism. When I was studying, I dreamed of working [in his firm].
So did you manage to work there?
Topy: Yes, but I first worked in the office of Enrique V. Dizon. One of his notable projects is the church in Greenbelt. After two years, I left Dizon, because his architecture is very conservative. Sabi ko, hindi ako pwede dito. I was already aiming for Formoso. I applied, natanggap naman ako.
If Toni hadn’t followed in your footsteps, would one of your partners have succeeded you?
Topy: I think so. When I opened my firm, I didn’t think about succession. My children are of course included in succession planning, but it’s open to everyone, because I also know a lot of architectural firms na kapag namatay yung principal, the firm dies with them. I trained all my staff so that anybody can be a successor. I wanted my eldest son to take up Architecture. But he doesn’t know how to draw.
Toni: Lately lang siya nahilig sa construction. Dati talaga, wala.
Topy: So I thought, yung susunod na lang, which is Toni.
Did you really want to take up Architecture?
Toni: A common question to me is whether I was forced. Not really, because I’ve always been interested. When I was a child, in grade school I was the go-to person of the teachers when it comes to arts and crafts. I was often excused in class to design the bulletin boards of other classrooms. Still thrills me recalling that memory. And I was exposed to Dad’s work, finding him drafting was a common scenario for me. I think the defining moment was when he was doing the Diploma house [in Bel-Air, Makati]. That time, we didn’t have a driver yet, so after school he would pick me up and take me to the job site. I just went inside the site and fell in love with it, there was scaffolding, people were doing something in the house…
Topy: Bata pa si Toni, tingin ko mga five years old, alam ko na siya yung magiging arkitekto eh.
Toni: Nahihiya siya mag- English, so pinipilit niya akong mag-present. [Laughs] So there, we walked into Bobby’s office, and then we presented the company, and the meeting took three hours.
How did you feel going into that presentation?
Toni: Siyempre naman hindi ko gusto. [Laughs]
Topy: Ang problema kasi ng Pinoy, mahiyain.
Toni: But that wasn’t my first presentation, the first was for Pontefino. It was a big group, twelve CEOs. At that time, I was usually in the office, doing my homework there—actually, since grade school I was always in our Makati office, answering the phone and saying “Vasquez Architects, good morning!” If it’s for him I’d say, “Daddy, sayo daw!” then he’d get angry and say “Boss! Huwag daddy!” [Laughs] Anyway, one day I was in the office and Dad told me that we’re going to a presentation. In the car, he just gave me the A3 and he said, “Study it. You’re presenting.” And I was like, “Whaaaa?” From Makati to Megamall area lang yun.
Topy: Mas maganda yung biglaan eh, mas attentive ka.
Toni: What I didn’t understand was, I could have said no. But I took the challenge.
One of his legacies I apply is paying it forward, through training. No restraint in teaching our staff.
After UST, you studied in the US, right?
Toni: Yeah, in New Jersey Institute of Technology. But after graduating from UST, I worked for TVA&P first. I was a junior architect under Ar. Flint, he made me do drawings, gave me deadlines… Anyway, my course in the States was supposed to be three years, but I finished it in a year and a half, so I had excess years to find work there and get experience. I applied in New York, and I became one of the internship finalists for Richard Meier’s firm. But at that time, sobrang stroke of luck, the recession happened, so companies stopped hiring immediately. I tried in LA, but it was the same there. I thought of just giving up and going back to the Philippines, eh parang kulang talaga. Eventually, an Italian architect, Bondanelli Design Group took interest in me, I told them I would take a bargain just to work there, pay me with food, whatever, I don’t care. I stayed there for eight months, then Dad told me to go home because our company was booming. That was in 2010. I was appointed the head of our Cebu branch, because for a long time, that branch didn’t have a leader.
What challenges did you encounter when you were appointed to that position?
Toni: First was learning Cebu’s culture. Because I came from the States, the culture was progressive, very liberated. It was straightforward, if something is ugly, it’s ugly, you have to change it. Dito, dapat maingat ka magsalita, onion-skinned ang tao. People-pleaser ka dapat. You can’t be an antagonist. I see that often in job sites.
How do the two of you work and interact together?
Toni: When I was growing up, I didn’t really like any architectural style. Dad would ask me to sit next to him while he was drawing, explaining his concepts. I think it changed after my training in the States, because there, they really want you to think and have your own opinion. When I came back, I had a certain flair, confidence kumbaga. Then ayun, that’s where our feuds in design started. [Laughs] We have different architectural languages. Even when he designs iconic and statement buildings, it’s always practical. Mine is more of raging hormones, my designs are still very young.
Topy: Ang style ko kasi…of course the basic concept starts from me, the principal architect. Pero hindi ako yung, “Walang pwedeng humipo sa idea na ‘to!” I’m open to all my employees sharing their thoughts. We challenge ourselves, so we do internal competitions for big projects.
Toni: It was also part of our strategy, for us to be in separate offices. Cebu, I get to run it as a young version of TVA&P. All of the seniors are in Makati, they have their own style.
Topy: Para sakin, kailangan din minsan mag-clash.
Toni: That’s the richest part of the concept process in designing. Clashing gives the idea more texture.
Has it been tough for you to prove yourself?
Toni: Tough is an understatement. “Excruciating” is more fitting. I’m often attacked and ridiculed whether I’m only in this profession because of my father and if I even like it at all. I remember a high school seatmate asking me to draw something on the spot to prove my talent, and I was insulted and furious. Little did I know there will be many more of him through college, graduate school and even until now. Back in college I remember I’ve ha professors grilling me about whether I had someone else work on my plate. I remember one time, we were working on a project and I had a great idea for a concept. Prior to the presentation, Dad told the client that it was from me and he immediately lost interest. So for the next project, a resort in Boracay, I did a little experiment and asked my father if he could be the one to present my concept, and the client liked it. Later on, we had to tell him that the idea came from me, and he was poker-faced. This was six to seven years ago.
Has the possibility of being accused of nepotism been an issue between the two of you?
Toni: Dad has always been cautious about the issue of nepotism, which I think explains why he was harder on me than his other employees. In fact, I used to get hypersensitive when he seems to let the mistakes ofothers slide easily whereas I always felt I was being beaten by a stick. He never gave me an unfair advantage. As a matter of fact, I believe I work longer hours, being his daughter! [Laughs]
What do you feel is your most important legacy to your daughter, and to the firm as well?
Topy: I have two in mind. One is, all of our projects are solely designed by our company. No foreign consultant behind the designs. The other more important is honesty, integrity and professionalism. In honesty, we’ve been tested so many times. There was one time, we joined a competition. We were supposed to be second place, but the cost of the building was 400 million, but the budget is just supposed to be 250 million. The judge, who I knew, warned that I would lose. Eh what can I do, eh yun yung totoong budget. So I said, just choose the best design. So we lost that competition. Another instance is, we lost a big client in Cebu because he was replicating our blueprints, tapos binebenta sa contractors.
Toni: Parang pirated CD lang.
Topy: Sinabi ko nalang sa client na bawal yun. Di bale nang magalit siya, itama nalang natin para huwag siyang malugi kasi in two or three years tataas ang cost kasi mali-mali ang drawings. We lost that client, pero ganun talaga eh.
Toni: One of his legacies I apply is paying it forward, through training. No restraint in teaching our staff, from teaching them how to create concepts up to how to present.
Topy: When I was still young, andadamot ng lahat ng arkitekto sa Pilipinas. Di ka tuturuan eh. Sagot sayo, “Bahala ka sa buhay mo!” Magtatanong ako kung paano ba ‘to, sasabihin, “Mag-research ka!” May isa pa, yung boss ko, pinag-drawing ako ng toilet. Sabi niya, “Topy, transfer this door to the other side.” Tanong ko, “Sir, why?” Sabi niya, “Huwag ka nang maraming tanong, ilipat mo nalang diyan!” Self-study eh. Kaya ako, every move sa plano, I explain to the employee.
For you, Toni, what do you hope to achieve for yourself? And what is your vision for the firm?
Toni: For myself, it’s to be acknowledged and respected as a person of my own. I’m not in a hurry for that, I still see myself as an architect-in-training. For TVA&P, to cross borders of course, since ASEAN integration is coming, and join fellow talented Filipinos and make a name for the country. But quite frankly, ASEAN integration is scary in the sense our architects might be geared towards service-oriented types of work, which is what we’re trying so hard to resist.
Topy: I think the next strategy of the company is really to go abroad. Kasi dito nakakapagod. Ang hirap. Maganda rin na magkaroon ng foreign consultants dito, because that will bring architectural maturity to our architects.
This story first appeared as “Toni and Topy Vasquez: Hardcore and Hardworking” in BluPrint Special Issue 3, 2014. Minor edits have been made for Bluprint.ph.